Pentagon officials reclassified a missing Marine as “captured” Tuesday, helping to dampen suspicions that he had deserted his base in Iraq before apparently being taken hostage by militants more than a week ago.
But while the outside world seemed intent on continuing to parse the details of Cpl. Wassef Ali Hassoun’s movements, community leaders at his home here, in a suburb of Salt Lake City, said that how he ended up in the kidnappers’ hands was not important.
What matters, they said, is that one of their own has disappeared -- and appears to be in grave danger.
“We’re not sure, no one is, whether he is a POW or AWOL or whatever,” said Tarek Nosseir, a Salt Lake City real estate agent and presiding chairman of the Islamic Society of Greater Salt Lake.
“It shouldn’t matter. I’m only concerned about the gentleman’s family and making sure that he gets back to his family safe and sound,” he said.
Images of a blindfolded Hassoun were broadcast Sunday on the Arabic-language television channel Al Jazeera. Militants, one of whom could be seen holding a sword behind Hassoun’s head, said they intended to kill him unless “occupation jails” were emptied of Iraqis.
The situation has sparked renewed calls for harmony between this area’s two mosques and its dominant religious entity, the Mormon Church.
The Muslim community here, which numbers 25,000, has grown in recent years, fueled largely by refugees who include Somalis and Kurds from northern Iraq.
Although their relationship has been strained and distant at times, many Muslims and Mormons said, their devout faiths and the importance they place on family are common bonds.
When Utah played host to the 2002 Winter Olympics, Mormon volunteers brought together different religious communities in an interfaith group, said Steven Kohlert, one of the organizers.
The region’s mosques took an active role in that effort, and then became its focus to a large degree after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks -- when the group turned to combating bigotry against Muslims in the United States, Kohlert said.
After Hassoun, a 24-year-old American of Lebanese descent, was captured, the group began writing a letter to the Iraqi people, Kohlert said. The letter, which was still in the works Tuesday night, will urge Hassoun’s release and warn the Iraqi people that Islamic extremists distort their faith to justify their actions, Kohlert said.
“Irrespective of what side you are on, these atrocities have to make you weep,” he said. “These people do not represent the teachings of the Koran.”
In the basement of the Al Noor mosque, where Hassoun worships when he is home, Mohamed Rashid prepared for midday prayers.
The 48-year-old Somali, trailed by three teenage sons, said Monday that he was weary of the seemingly endless round of kidnappings and killings in Iraq -- particularly now that the impact of the war has hit home.
“I, myself, hate this situation,” he said. “I hate the war, the kidnapping.”
Hassoun, who is assigned to the Camp Pendleton-based 1st Marine Expeditionary Force and served as a translator and cultural liaison between Marines and Iraqi civilians, was last seen early last week, Pentagon officials said.
The military initially labeled Hassoun “UA” -- guilty of an unauthorized absence. Some military authorities believed he was headed to Lebanon to join family members.
Investigators had been sifting through a variety of scenarios -- that he was lured from his base by militants before his capture, for instance, and that he was seen carrying a large sum of money.
On Tuesday the Marines issued a statement to clarify that, while the investigation continues, Hassoun is formally a captive of militants.
“While his absence initially prompted investigators to believe he was missing, the video shown on international television depicted the Marine being held against his will by masked captors,” Associated Press quoted the statement as saying.
"[I]n light of what we have observed on the terrorists’ video, we have classified him as captured,” it said.
Nosseir confirmed Tuesday that the Marines had told the family that Hassoun was now considered a captive.
Capt. Christian Portiss, a Marine inspector and instructor for a reserve company based at Ft. Douglas, near Salt Lake City, read a brief statement from Hassoun’s family to reporters who were gathered at his home in West Jordan on Tuesday.
“He needs your prayers, your thoughts, your support,” the statement said. “That is what is necessary.”
Times staff writers David Kelly in West Jordan and John Hendren in Washington contributed to this report.